Tuesday, February 10, 2009

The postmodern despair

I live with an amusing and very intelligent fellow with whom I had the privilege of attending college. He is a good deal sharper than I am, the proof of which is that he often happens upon a particular theory well in advance of me; when I at last catch up, I mention my discovery to him, as he exasperatedly explains that he already knew this, and had, in fact, mentioned it to me previously. For instance, during our freshman year, he flatly pointed out that there was no difference between the Republicans and the Democrats. I objected, only to recite this very same fact with utter confidence some years later.

Similarly, for years he has been preaching to me what could ironically be dubbed the postmodern faith. And for years he has attempted to rebut my criticisms of that which, in fairness, neither he nor I, nor anyone really, completely understand. The tale of postmodernism involves a little history lesson. As science developed, man became more confident that he could comprehend the world in its entirety. Rejecting religion, modernists sought to use reason alone to understand man and his society. Faith left man content to gaze at the stars and hope for a better existence in some future life; but science promised to harness happiness in the here and now, in the inexorable march of progress.

Just as faith suffered a blow in the wars between Protestants and Catholics in the Reformation, and, to an extent, made way, eventually, for modernism, the bloodbath that was the twentieth century shattered man's faith in his own perfectibility. Billed as "the war to end all wars", the first world war settled precisely nothing; Europe had bathed in the blood of its children, and would do so again in less than thirty years. It would be some timbefore modernism would admit its defeat; meanwhile, the poet T.S. Eliot captured the mood best with his masterpiece, The Waste Land, which was published shortly after the end of the first war. As historian Paul Johnson puts it in his book Creators, "The Waste Land is not a narrative but a poem about moods, predominately despair and desolation, reflecting the ruin and waste of Eliot's private life and the defeat World War I had pointlessly inflicted on civilization."

Postmodernism can best be seen and understood as a reaction against the modernists. But whereas traditionalists such as Hilaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton defended the Catholic Church, and the civilization which it built, and offered Her creed as the antidote to modernism, postmodernism retains the disregard for religious truth, and, indeed, much scientific truth as well; it offers a sort universal skepticism to the confidence of the moderns. Often contradictory, it tends to evade criticism because it makes so few claims.

It is also, my friend informs me, more about a mood and a state in which we find ourselves, than a school of thought led by protagonists. There are postmodern theorists of course, which I have neither the patience nor the inclination to explain; but it is a peculiar theory for which to fight. For a fight must have a cause, and the postmodernists don't seem to have one.

Now, as a Catholic, like the Chesterbelloc, I would answer the postmodernist by pointing to truth. We could start with things grasped easily, like the existence of natural laws, by which man is bound, and without which civilizations crumbles into barbarism. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception we would save for later.

And yet, even as I would meet these fellows with whatever wit I could muster, I have to admit that to an extent the postmodernists seem to have a point. They are wrong, of course, because however dubious we may be--and often should be--about the truth of certain matters, it is an intolerable absurdity to insist that it is not there because we cannot find it. Yet, as Eliot captured, the world does seem out of place, probably even unusually so. High culture has receded to be replaced by pap, offering no substance, but mere digestibility in the form of popular culture.

This dreary decadence has happened before, and it will happen again, so it's unwise to get overly lethargic. After all the excesses of the Renaissance, especially the behavior of the clergy, were one of the major impetuses to the Reformation. In the meantime, some good art was produced--although I've not read it, Erasmus's In Praise of Folly is generally regarded as a brilliant book. Selected geniuses aside, overall, the religious wars seemed to exhaust the energies of Europe; it took respite, resigned tolerance, and the casual passing of the seasons to make her again resplendent with a culture which forms a more honorable part of our heritage.

Normally, I'd insist, arrogantly, that the Church will unexpectedly ride to the rescue, as She often does. Just as the Jesuits confounded the Calvinists and Lutherans by saving half of Europe for Rome, just as the martyrs of the early Church surprised the Romans by dying joyously, and leaving one hundred more in their stead, the possibility of resurgence remains. But as anticipations of such are grounded solely on faith, and in utter disregard for the present position of the Church, it behooves us to look elsewhere.

It would be difficult to describe what we see as good, or even promising. Where are the satirists for this time of decadence? Is culture content to allow itself to be overtaken by a whirlwind of mediocrities?

Postmodernists argue, with some success, that society has lost all perspective. Experience, no longer rooted in anything, has become an end in itself; human life becomes a collection of experience; society, a collection of collections. Pagan society had myth: for the Greeks, this meant Homer. It didn't matter that it was difficuly to believe all the specifics of the stories; they provided the grounding, the shared vocabulary, which allowed Greek society to achieve such greatness. Similarly, Jewish society had the Torah and the priesthood. Christian society had the Church, and, with the coming of the Reformation, the Bible. Postmodern man has television shows which bring together the list of all of the neat things that happened during the last week. He has movies whose jokes are mere references to other movies he has recently seen. His personality becomes a list of things he likes; his friends are those who happen to profess a liking for similar things. To achieve individuality, he adds further and divergent interests to his list; sheer probability seems to separate him from the crowd. But whether he is popular or solitary, fundamentally, he is alone. He has enough distractions to fill his life should he so desire, but he is utterly unequipped to solve the existential crisis which confronts him when he is no longer surrounded by the cacophony of the media circus.

Like my friend, Walker Percy was way ahead of me. Binx Bolling, the antihero of his book The Moviegoer is a sterling representative of postmodern man, and a gentle reminder that while the culture in which he dwells changes frequently, man himself does not. Percy begins his book by quoting Kierkegaard: "the specific character of despair is precisely this: it is unaware of being despair". I can summarize no better, and can but plead for hope; hope that man may once again discover that he is not just a product of his time, but is instead a member of the brave and enduring human race. Greatness awaits.


troutsky said...

I still have that Enlightenment "faith"( my proofs are subjective) that a New Man is possible, a la Rosseau, Machiavelli, Jefferson etc. I don't know if your "natural laws" includes physics but just as the observer affects the outcome of the experiment, at this level of pure energy we all have an effect on others.The effect I hope to have is to generate an acceptance of multiple truths and rejection of the capital T.I hope others have a positive effect on me. (so far, so good)

With tough times ahead we may learn a thing or two about the pros and cons of "original man"and the current state of barbarism but I am remaining confident that post-modern malaise will give way to the utopian imaginary.

A Wiser Man Than I said...

I've been reading Will and Ariel Durant's Story of Civilization. Since they're tremendously partial to the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment, it's been an intriguing counterpoint to my usual supply of Catholic history which sees things as tumbling downhill after the Reformation.

I don't share your optimism, but I am intrigued at what will come.

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